Clairton was bursting at the seams with all the new employees who were coming to work in the mill. The immigrants of course settled with those whose language and customs they shared; Italians lived near Italians, Slavs near Slavs, African Americans with African Americans, Germans with Germans, Irish with Irish and so forth. Although we did not think of these enclaves as ghettoes, they followed a pattern much like that of nearby communities and major population centers. The trend began in the mid 19th century with the immigration of Germans and Irish and continued with Middle and Eastern Europeans throughout the 1920s. Clairton soon became an ethnic microcosm of industrial centers throughout America with the steel mills paying most of the taxes, and so the town grew.
Prior to the mills being built along the Monongahela River, Clairton was the site of Central Park, a large riverside amusement park where wealthy Pittsburghers and other area people came to dance and enjoy themselves. Once the mills bought up the riverside property and the park was gone, an- other site was identified to become Clairton Park, which to this day remains one of the finest and most beautiful picnic and outdoor areas in the greater Pittsburgh area.
The community continued to grow as a rich, culturally diverse middle class community. A high school was built and quickly outgrown. A second, much larger high school was built across the street and what had been the original high school became one of several elementary schools in the community. At its peak, Clairton had a population that ap- proached 25,000 and contained four or five movie theaters, a dozen car dealerships, and nearly two-dozen churches of all denominations, a private parochial school, and commerce to accommodate every citizen’s need.
The immigrants who settled for the most part spoke little English besides what was required to survive at work, the market, and to acquire life’s necessities. The children of those immigrants were to become part of the so-called Greatest Generation. They were born at the onset of the Great Depression and frequently served as translators for their parents. Many were bi-lingual and spoke smatterings of several languages. An example was the local mortician, Tony Beckavac. His was the primary funeral home for Clairton residents who lived on “The Hill” (as opposed to the north part of Clairton: Wilson and Coal Valley). I was fascinated while attending funerals of immigrants who had lived in
Clairton for many years and had befriended people from other cultures. When the funeral was about to begin, Tony would step to the front of the room and give instructions in English, then give the same instructions in Italian, Serbian, Slovenian, or whatever language was needed to accommodate the mourners. It was a sociological phenomenon.
The children of the immigrants in Clairton were, for the most part, very frugal out of necessity. Money was often scarce due to strikes, layoffs, work stoppages, and the ebbs and flows of the nation’s need for steel. With the onset of the 1930s came the Great Depression. The Steel industry faltered as clients worldwide pulled back their steel orders. Shopkeepers walked a fine line between cash and credit. Basic necessities for food and clothing existed but without cash to pay for them shopkeepers either carried longtime customers on credit or lost their businesses when their own debt over- whelmed them. Many immigrants had large families and it was not uncommon to have younger children work for local businesses doing menial labor. Goods were often paid in lieu of wages. The children’s meager income was sometimes the family’s only source of income. Many lost their homes or could not afford to maintain them. Others moved out of their homes and rented more humble abodes while renting out their own homes and hoping that the tenants would be able to pay the rent.
My mother often related stories of life during the Depression. She and her younger brother, Mike, were hired by Frank Grisnik to clean the bakery after business hours.
Their task included cleaning the floor that was caked with a residue of flour, and other ingredients needed for making bread and baked goods. To ease the drudgery the children would strap scrub brushes to their feet and pretend they were skating. Once the residue was loosened they would scrub the floors. They were paid not in cash but in Grade A flour that allowed their mother to bake bread and cook staples that required flour. My mother and her sisters also worked during the Depression cleaning the windows and floors of the Clairton Hotel, located near the corner of St. Clair and Miller Avenues. The large second story windows opened by swinging out and many is the time they feared they would push too hard and fall.
The little that they earned from such jobs was not enough to offset their father Pete’s lack of income. Fortunately, the house was paid for as Pete and Kata had built it themselves with the help of friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, taxes on the house were still due and since they were unable to afford the taxes, they rented out their own house and sought cheaper housing, first in the rural part of Jefferson Borough, then further down the river near Aliquippa. My mother and her father would take the train from Aliquippa to Clairton each month to collect the rent but on more than one occa- sion the tenants were unable to pay the rent and the eviction process was a difficult, time consuming, and expensive one. Not only did they lose the rent that the tenant had not paid, but the cost of eviction created even a greater financial toll on the family. Somehow, however, they made it through the Great Depression and managed to keep their house on Arch Street that overlooked the mill offices.
When the Great Depression finally came to an end in 1941, it was in large part because America had gone to war and the industrial complex needed war products and mate- rials that would be manufactured by Americans. This also gave a huge boost to the steel industry. But it was a mixed blessing, for as the economy began to improve and the jobs began coming back, many of the men who would fill those jobs would be drafted or volunteer for the military service, leaving behind huge numbers of job vacancies.
However, the Greatest Generation included not only sons, but also the daughters of immigrants; women assumed the roles of police officers, steel workers, truck drivers, con- struction workers, and nearly every other occupation.
Posters appeared of a young lady dressed in work clothes and using tools. She became “Rosie the Riveter,” a symbol of workingwomen who had filled the vacancies left by men gone off to war. In fact, my own mother, whose birth name Ruza had been Americanized to Rose, worked in the steel mill during the war doing what had previously been consid- ered a job that only a man could do.